Pay Hikes for NJ Teachers Dip Slightly But Recent Pacts Hint at Reversal of Trend

While salary increases may be on the rise, contracts call for concessions such as paying more toward health benefits

New Jersey teachers are returning to their classrooms this month with smaller pay increases than in previous years.

The state schools boards association said the average pay increase in settled contracts as of this past spring was about 2.25 percent for the 2013-14 school year. That’s down from 2.37 percent last year and half of the average pay hike of almost 4.5 percent five years ago, according to the association.

But the decline in pay increases appears to be ebbing, if not ending, with recent settlements starting to creep up a little from what were historic lows.

In the Burlington County district of Moorestown, for instance, a contract ratified Monday amounted to a 7.16 percent increase for teachers over the next three years. That averages out to about 2.4 percent a year, although the contract includes other concessions.

The school boards association, as well as the state’s dominant teachers union, said that they have seen a leveling in the pay increase decline as well, although it remains too early to tell how long the trend will last.

According to the school boards association, in more than 100 of the most-recently settled contracts, the average salary increase was about 2.31 percent, a slight up-tick from the previous average.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the teacher union for most districts in the state, cited Moorestown among a handful of districts where recent settlements have seen salary increases exceeding 2.5 percent in some years. Others included Lenape, Galloway and Berlin Township school districts.

“It’s slightly higher,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. “It’s not moving up fast, but it is a little higher. The fall that we have seen in the last few years, that has run its course.”

Trends in contract settlements are significant, as teacher pay and benefits remain virtually every district’s biggest cost. And for the last few years — as state aid was tightened if not cut outright and a new 2 percent property tax cap was placed on schools — the pressure was on unions to fall in line.

Three years ago, Gov. Chris Christie demanded publicly that unions settle for salary freezes, and longer-term contracts with minimal increases of just 1 or 2 percent were not uncommon. The public appetite for anything more was limited.

While those pressures have eased somewhat, some say that doesn’t mean the public has acquired a taste for big pay hikes for teachers.

The president of the Moorestown school board, Don Mishler, said that while economic woes have eased for the private sector, he wasn’t ready to say that local governments and school districts have yet been so fortunate.

“I haven’t seen where it has eased to the point where the kinds of salary increases in the ‘90s and early 2000s can return, not at all,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mishler said teachers are also being asked to pay more toward their health benefits under new statewide reforms, and the district was able to gain other concessions having to do with the salary guide.

“There was a lot of frank discussion with the union,” said Mishler, who sat out of the direct contract talks. “The salaries were one thing, the health care was another, and in the long run we made it clear that maintaining certain programs may not be possible (at this rate).”

While Mishler conceded the pay raises in the latest Moorestown contract were a little higher than the latest statewide average – “Maybe it’s a sign we’re not average,” he commented — the board president said he didn’t see the fiscal pressures ebbing much just yet.

“What impacts our negotiations is our ability to raise taxes. That impacts it as much as anything,” he said. “The taxpayers still have to pay the bill.”

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